The Yale International Students’ Organization took on recent issues regarding race and discrimination on campus at a Thursday night panel discussion entitled “Race in Global Context.”
The discussion consisted of three panel discussions about race and identity, majority and minority students and other topics related to last semester’s racial controversies. The panels, which were led and moderated by a rotation of faculty members as well as students, followed a presentation of spoken word poetry by Emi Mahmoud ’16 about her experiences in the U.S. and her home country of Sudan. All three panel discussions examined current racial problems at Yale, as well as in America in general, through the lens of being an international student.
“As much as we like to think we are in a post-racial world, we are not,” panelist Daniel Silverman YNUS ’17, who is half-white and half-Asian, said. “Although I might not be inferior [to my white friends], I am not equal to them.”
The first panel emphasized the power of words by analyzing the term “person of color,” how it applies to international students and the categorization of people that comes with it. Panelist Ho Kyeong Jang ’17, who is from South Korea, said he chooses to identify as a person of color in the United States because here, “if you’re not white, you’re a person of color.” He said that he finds the term helpful in mobilizing and uniting racial minorities.
However, Silverman felt that the term homogenized people too much; he said that it is important to consider that not everyone who is a minority falls into that category. Though panelist Albert Laguna, a professor of Ethnicity, Race & Migration and American Studies, said certain categorizations can sometimes be helpful, such as in the context of departments and classes, other attendees said they did not like the way U.S. society fits people into boxes.
“The first time I had to check off my race was when I came to the United States,” attendee Ana Barros ’18, who comes from Brazil, said.
During the next panel, moderators questioned how the dynamics of the terms “majority” and “minority,” as well as the racial experiences associated with them, play out in different countries. All three panelists were from African countries, but had had completely different experiences with being a part of the minority population.
For panelist Esther Soma ’16, who grew up mostly in Kenya, being “a minority” was not a common phrase to her until she landed in the U.S. However, Thuto Thipe GRD ’21, a panelist from South Africa, said that she cannot think of a time in her life when she did not think of herself as black, which in South Africa means being less likely to achieve powerful positions.
“For me, black is a political identity,” Thipe said. “We all know it’s rubbish now, biologically, but it carries so much weight.”
The last panel addressed international students’ places on campus when it comes to understanding race relations in the United States. Panelist Yi-Ling Liu ’17 said that because she is from Hong Kong, she finds it hard to understand the discrimination and stereotyping that her Asian-American friends have experienced here in the U.S. However, she said, she tries to acknowledge the differences in the two countries and figure out how to empathize.
The other panelists, Ewurama Okai ’17 and Wabantu Hlophe ’18, commented that international students do not necessarily need to feel like they have to be a part of the discussions about racism in America just because they may be “persons of color.” However, they can still add to the conversation by bringing their knowledge of their own countries to the table.
“It’s not necessarily about putting yourself in the middle of the American version of the conversation, but about viewing yourself as a different dimension,” Okai said. “It allows you to bring something new and personal to the conversation that makes it relevant and salient to you.”
The second and third panel discussions paid particular attention to the idea of oppression. Mahmoud explained that considering certain people minorities can cause “otherizing,” which ultimately leads to persecution.
Thipe, Soma and Mahmoud all spoke about the government’s role in continuing this oppression, especially in South Africa and the Darfur region of Sudan.
Yet the panelists were optimistic about what international students can do to combat the climate of racial tensions at Yale. Hlophe said that because he grew up in an environment where he was not seen as simply an addition to “diversity,” he believes that he can excel at Yale just as much as the next person. Mahmoud added that students of color have the ability to change the way they feel about being labeled.
“When you take down the power behind a word, it doesn’t hurt anymore,” Mahmoud said. “Wherever you are, you can try to break down the rhetoric.”
With over 750 members, the International Students’ Organization is Yale’s largest cultural organization.